I am not very good at games where I have to shoot at things.
Now, I realize that needs to be qualified: I’m probably better at that than 99% of the world’s population. I can manipulate two sticks with my thumbs, or a keyboard and a mouse, with enough coordination to move through their spaces. I don’t get motion sick from them. (I do get motion sick from reading in a car).
When you start Metro:Last Light, it tells you that on higher difficulty levels you will need to be stealthy, that engaging enemies is deadly. So when I started playing it, I put it on easy. I don’t need a high difficulty setting to dread combat encounters. I thought that I didn’t have the patience for stealth, an approach that I assumed would be rewarded with fewer enemy encounters, meaning I could keep more resources for when I was forced by the game to fight.
The game’s protagonist, Artyom, ended the game’s prequel by committing apparent genocide against a race of creatures called “Dark Ones”. Turns out there’s one left, and so the guilt-ridden young man sets out across and under a post-nuclear war Moscow to find this child and, he hopes, some kind of redemption.
The game works very hard to keep you in Artyom’s body, never breaking from his first-person viewpoint. There’s a first-person lapdance, first-person foreplay, and of course, first-person gunplay. Blood and water and dirt splash onto your gas mask, which you can wipe off with a button press. It feels like a jab at the technique of replacing an explicit lifebar with blood-spatter on the—well, the camera lens, I guess, in search of realism. It’s still artificial, it’s still a form of information visualization, but it uses the visual language of the rest of the game.
So many games deliver their history through text, whether it’s in a self-contained encyclopedia buried in a menu or scrawled across a wall in-game. Some games are in love with the latter because it never intrudes on your shooting things. It catches your eye in combat, maybe, but it waits patiently to be read.
There’s not much of this in Last Light. Instead, it fills its spaces with people who have conversations. Civilians and enemies alike will talk and talk and talk. The difference between the two groups is small: You can’t shoot the former to stop their speech, but the latter will stop the minute they see you.
My setting the game on easy to make combat less of a chore so I could avoid stealth became moot the moment I realized what was going on here. At first, I wished I could play the game in a kind of ghost mode, just drifting through each space and eavesdropping. But as the game went on, I realized how powerful a stealth-motivator these conversations were.
I wanted to be quiet so I can hear what people have to say. I know the moment one of them sees or hears me, what little humanity the writing imbues them with will be lost. The variety of discussions across the game give way to a series of informative barks: soldiers shouting to soldiers things that are more for my benefit as the player than their benefit as computer-based people whose communication occurs on a code-level, regardless of whether or not there are audio cues tied to it.
I said the writing imbues them with humanity, but it’s also the animation. Animation that the game doesn’t lock you in place to see, that it doesn’t repeat over and over and over again to make sure that you don’t miss it. I understand the impulse to make sure your work is seen: Filmmakers have it easy compared to game developers. As long as you look at the screen, the former can frame what you’re looking at. And though going to a movie theater might not be as common as it used to be, those giant rooms with their seats and their darkness were built to focus your attention on the flickering screen-light. But any horny teenager can tell you that the architecture can be undermined, used for other purposes.
The consistency of systems that is required for a game to be “responsive”, for the player to know that what happens on the screen will match up to what they think should happen when they hit a button, to know how fast they can run or how far they can jump, becomes suddenly artificial when it’s a looped animation or conversation. Having an identical discussion with another character for the fourth time is going to be jarring to someone who is unfamiliar with games’ technical constraints (and the priorities that accept those constraints).
Artyom is tortured by what he’s done in the past. But unlike so many games of the past couple years, the game never stops and tells me that I, the player, should feel guilty. I can understand Artyom’s guilt without feeling responsible myself. The game trusts that I have empathy.
And that’s great, because blaming solely the player for what happens in a game is the equivalent of grabbing their arm and forcing them to slap themselves repeatedly in the face while shouting “Why are you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself!”
About ten years ago I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. During the tour, the docent told us that Wright had designed the hallways to be low-ceilinged and narrow to encourage people to move through them quickly. These inter-spaces, she explained, were not meant to have things happen in them.
I suppose this is a problem that the very wealthy have—large hallways that people merely walk through that take away from the space where One can celebrate One’s breeding through good taste in antiques and art and heirlooms. Not that modern architecture had much interest in antiques.
And its interest in most people wasn’t in letting them express themselves through their things; it was saving them from themselves.
Social salvation through architecture: It’s difficult to say how many modern architects believed in it, but it’s great material for a manifesto. A creepily authoritarian manifesto that doesn’t really work in practice. Pruitt-Igoe wasn’t a panacea.
But architecture’s ability to control how difficult actions are, making some easier and some harder, is far more limited than games’ ability to stop certain actions altogether. Walls made of walls are easier to contest than “walls” made of code. Because the latter are the former reduced to a single function.
Last Light is divided into combat and non-combat spaces. In the latter, you cannot shoot your gun. Most of the time the gun isn’t even jutting up from the bottom of the screen, reassuring you that yes, you can affect the world! You do have power! Even in a combat space, though, you’re limited: point the gun at an AI companion and pull the trigger and the gun does not fire.
No accidental gun violence. It’s kill-only-what-you-can-be-killed-by. And the enemies? Well, if they weren’t enemies then they wouldn’t have been shot. Or tortured. Or surveilled.
That’s the only thing they can do. Despite all their writing and their animation, the code that triggers both and controls their behavior, they can only react. Their fate is to be dodged or destroyed. You can’t undermine digital architecture if you’re a part of it.
Binary Mortal is an occasional column on videogames from Brian Taylor. He apologizes to all the architectural historians reading this for reducing modern architecture to social control.